When I think back on this sad time (assuming I survive it), the above image will always evoke the Covid era in New York City for me.
The art, by Jorge Colombo, appeared in The New Yorker magazine last summer as part of a series titled, prematurely as it turns out, “The City Recovers.” In this view of Tribeca at night, I see melancholy and unnatural quietude, as well as the courage that has been required of the city’s restaurant owners to just get by.
There are any number of heartbreakers, aside from the human toll, of this virus’s effect on my home town. It’s brought New York to its knees. People are fleeing for the suburbs. No wonder, with schools opening, then closing, on a mayoral whim, because of an arbitrary number. The glass towers of Manhattan have been standing mostly empty, their millions of square feet of office space unoccupied and unneeded, perhaps forever. Broadway has been dark for the longest period in its history. The subway ended its century-long tradition of 24 hour service. Ridership is a third of normal, while crime has gone up, a result of the mentally ill going uncared-for elsewhere, the NYT says.
All of that worries me when I consider the city’s future, but it’s the restaurants I find most touching — their desire to stay alive, their ingenious reinventions as greengrocers and purveyors of raw ingredients, their cute promotions (show us your ‘I Voted’ sticker and we’ll give you a free cookie!) and makeshift arrangements for outdoor dining. The set-ups range from ever-more-elaborate plywood structures with rudimentary roofing, partial walls and seasonal décor like hay bales, pumpkins and baskets of mums, to orange traffic cones and clear shower curtains as space dividers in two former parking spots.
They seem to be meeting with varying degrees of success. Some of the impromptu sidewalk cafés, attached to restaurants that lucked out by being located on a pleasant corner, attract lines for Sunday brunch. My local high street, Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights, has many good restaurants — Olmsted, Maison Yaki, Amorina, White Tiger, Alta Calidad and more — and they all seem to be hanging in there. But many others report that they’re struggling, and the city may lose half its eating establishments by the time this is done. New York’s restaurant stock is a collective institution, of generally excellent quality and unimaginable variety, and it mustn’t be allowed to disappear.
The city has now extended outdoor dining year-round, but I fear for those half-enclosed huts, even with heat lamps, when winter winds start whipping around the corners. I’ve occasionally wondered why New York doesn’t have a thriving sidewalk-café culture like Paris. Then I remember: I’ve been to Paris in mid-winter, and it’s not that cold. Not by New York standards.
I have a bulletin board on which I tack the cards of places I’ve gone and want to remember, almost always for their atmosphere (I rarely remember what I ate). There’s Cotenna, a hole in the wall on Bedford Street in Greenwich Village, into which a friend and I once stumbled on a rainy afternoon after a movie, and sat for hours at the end of the bar. Wild Son, on a sunny industrial block near the river, where the food was so healthy and fresh and the bartenders so friendly and the margaritas so tart and well-priced. Jones Wood Foundry, the nearest thing to a cozy, unpretentious British pub on the Upper East Side. Not only haven’t I been to any of these favorite spots lately, I’ve only been to Manhattan twice since last winter, both times for doctor’s appointments.
Here in Brooklyn, I wonder how Café Paulette on Fort Greene Park and Cobble Hill’s Henry Public, with its tin-ceilings and marble mantels, and the quirky June on Court Street, are faring. I hope they’re all doing a booming business in take-out and delivery, and I look forward to rediscovering them on the other side of the vaccine. Myself, I’ve dined inside restaurants not at all, outdoors maybe five times, and have rediscovered home cooking. (This is as well in some ways, as I had been in the longstanding and very expensive habit of eating out practically every meal, and balance was needed.)
I imagine the city will eventually come back, will glitter and sparkle once again, like it did after September 11, like it did after Hurricane Sandy, picking up where it left off and continuing on its way, like the shape-shifting organism New York City has always been. ##